Published August 25, 2009

Paul's Epistle...

I enjoy hearing reports, especially in the secular media, of the growing success of various Southern Gospel music events. One such success story is Silver Dollar City's annual "Southern Gospel Picnic" event, beginning 2009's edition this week. I came across the following news account in the Branson, Missouri, "Morning News," and, with permission, wanted to share it with you as such an example. It also includes some interesting facts about the history of Southern Gospel music.

- Paul

"Give Me That Old-Time Religion"
By Becca Bacon Martin
Morning News (Branson, MO)

Long before Southern gospel groups sold records — or CDs or DVDs — they were selling sheet music and hymnals.

"Hymn book singing — that's the core of Southern gospel music right there," says D.A. Callaway, a musician himself and the event coordinator for Silver Dollar City's Southern Gospel Picnic. "In the 1920s, when publishers wanted to sell songbooks, they'd hire a quartet to go out to communities and sing from those books. That's how this industry of Southern gospel got started."

Nowadays, says Callaway, "Southern gospel is alive and well on the radio and the Internet, but these artists still travel full time, performing this music everywhere from churches to 4,000-seat amphitheaters."

Phenomenally popular groups like Dove Award-winners the Kingsmen, Gold City, Brian Free & Assurance, The Booth Brothers, Jeff & Sheri Easter, Karen Peck & New River and Mike & Kelly Bowling will be filling the theme park with music from Aug. 27 to Sept. 7.

The Southern Gospel Picnic started 10 years ago as a series of evening shows that drew "300 or 400 people," Callaway recalls. "Then it grew to 3,000 or 4,000, and we had to start adding programs in the daytime as well. Now it's 12 days and 12 nights."

Southern gospel has grown, too, Callaway says. "The Southern gospel genre has changed from being exclusively quartet-focused to including family groups, trios and even bluegrass and country groups," he says. "The common thread is that it's all uplifting - praise music from the heart, guaranteed to lift your spirits, make you tap your feet and clap along."

Callaway says it's not the first time Southern gospel has influenced other music. "Elvis Presley was supposedly the king of rock 'n' roll, but the only Grammys he ever won were for gospel music," he says. "He sold a huge body of gospel music, and even in rock 'n' roll, his backup groups were often gospel musicians. It might have been a secular subject, but that beat was the Southern gospel beat. The Oak Ridge Boys ... the Statler Brothers ... the sound they did was Southern gospel, even if it wasn't Southern gospel lyrically."

As another example, Callaway points to one of this year's headliners, the Reggie Saddler Family, led by former R&B artist Reggie Saddler. Saddler performed with artists from Jerry Lee Lewis to the Drifters before entering the gospel music ministry. "We all just grew up with Southern gospel," Callaway says. "It's in our blood."

If the Southern Gospel Picnic puts Silver Dollar City in a revival frame of mind, that means there's probably a dinner on the grounds somewhere. "Nothing pairs with Southern gospel music better than favorite picnic foods," says park spokeswoman Martha Hoy Bohner, and they'll be served up on the town square - double-battered Southern fried chicken, slow-roasted apple-glazed chicken and smoked barbecue chicken, with favorite "fixin's" from au gratin potatoes to coleslaw.

Throughout the festival, the park is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with extended hours of 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 5-6. Next on the schedule are the National Harvest Festival, Sept. 12-Oct. 31; and An Old Time Christmas, Nov. 7-Dec. 30. Information, schedules and tickets are available at 800-831-4FUN or www.silverdollarcity.com.

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